Steve Brinberg's Simply Barbra has regularly sold out all performances — usually well in advance — at Jerymn Street Theatre, and now he moves a notch up on the theatre scale by appearing at the Arts, where he will give his uncannily accurate portrait of Barbra Streisand — and a selection of other female celebs — beginning Oct. 7.
Theatrenow met the American star (Brinberg, not Streisand) at the Covent Garden hotel, in between his visit to actress Kay Kendall's grave in Hampstead — "I loved her films, am reading a biography of her and just wanted to see where she was and say hello" — and a publicity interview with the BBC.
Brinberg's show gets the sort of reviews most performers would die for — "He's been doing Streisand so long, he's better at it than she is": New York Times — and he's an accomplished interviewee, as Theatrenow found out.
As well as Miss Streisand, you 'do' other celebrities "Yes — Bette Davis, Ethel Merman, Cher, Eartha Kitt . . . and more! I'm also very fond of Julie Andrews, and she goes down well with British audiences for obvious reasons. As a kid I grew up watching Julie Andrews on film, so I've had plenty of time to study her. But, speaking of celebs, I like to have one — a real one — as a guest spot in my show, so I hope the audience at the Arts will get a pleasant surprise each night." How did you start in the business? "I used to sing in cabaret, appearing as myself, but then I thought, as my imitation of Barbra went down very well when I tried it out occasionally, that I would do a show as her, so I booked four evenings at a cabaret venue in New York, where I live, and I've never looked back."
You've taken Simply Barbra around the world? "Yes, I've done it in New York, London, Sydney, Singapore and on tour in the States, in England — I'm touring at the moment — and in Australia."
How has this year's British tour gone? "Very well. You don't have to be in a metropolis to get a sophisticated or enthusiastic reaction, and Exeter was one of the most receptive audiences I've ever had. I got off to an awkward start at Maidenhead though — thanks to transport problems I arrived over two hours late, so the audience weren't exactly on my side, but I made a joke about the delay being more typical of Judy Garland than Barbra and that broke the ice."
I gather you go to a lot of theatre when you're in London? "Yes, I see as much as I possibly can. But then I go to everything in New York as well — theatre's a passion as well as a profession, and I think people in the industry should support it as well. Especially after September 11th. New Yorkers really rallied round after that happened, there was a real sense of not letting that event wreck our theatre industry, and we pulled through."
What's the main difference between theatre-going in New York and London "There are two main differences, I think — first, the theatres in London are older and prettier; secondly, they are much more concentrated in one particular area in New York, whereas you find them all over the place in London!"
The Arts is much bigger than Jermyn Street where you've appeared before. How does that affect your show? "Well, Barbra herself, when she performed concerts professionally — she's retired from that now, though she'll still appear for charity or whatever, and she's doing a concert to raise money for the Democrats later this year — she would play to huge arenas.
"So when I play bigger venues — including much bigger than the Arts — the show sort of expands, and in a way I can give a more accurate presentation of her concert style, as well as the distance between the audience and me, making it easier to give the physical impression of actually being her. I look nothing like her in real life, but with the wig and the make-up, it all comes together and works."
You've got her singing voice so well that some people think you're lip synching to her music? "Yes! I've had managements put signs up outside theatres saying 'It's really him singing' because I've got her voice exactly now — though I hope my own personality comes through, even If I'm giving a very realistic performance as her and the other celebrities that I do. I've also got a CD out of songs from the show — or from the original show, rather, as I've changed a lot of the material over the years and have also expanded it, especially for the week at the Arts."
Do you have any ambitions to play other roles? Do you see yourself as Hamlet? "Every actor sees himself as Hamlet! I always say there are only three roles I've ever really wanted — Hamlet, Barbra Streisand and God: one down, two to go!"
Steven Brinberg is Simply Barbra at the Arts Theatre from Oct. 7-12 (no performance on Tuesday, Oct. 8).
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow